Random Thoughts On Fontana

Posted in IndyCar on June 29, 2015 by Oilpressure

Those that opted to do yard work Saturday afternoon instead of watching the MAVTV 500 from Fontana probably thought they would be missing a snoozer. I hate to tell you, but you were wrong. That race may have been the most exciting race I’ve seen in years. It was edge-of-your-seat excitement from start to finish. If you found this race boring or not entertaining, then you need to find another sport.

It’s a shame that those in charge of the Verizon IndyCar Series can’t get out of their own way, but somehow they managed to mar an otherwise fantastic race.

Graham Rahal was the race winner, but not without some controversy. On a late pit stop, his fueler inexplicably stuck the fuel probe back into filler neck, just as Rahal was pulling away. The fueling assembly was stuck inside the car as the fuel hose was ripped away from the tank, splashing raw fuel everywhere as Rahal exited his pit box.

My first thought was that it was a shame that Rahal would receive a drive-through penalty, since he had driven such a great race. But, I figured, that’s racing. Any type of miscue with pit equipment always results in a penalty, so unfortunate as it was – a penalty was deserved.

Derrick Walker came into the NBCSN booth and explained that it would be a post-race infraction, meaning either a fine or points deduction. He rationalized that they didn’t want to alter the on-track results, or something to that effect. This after Ryan Briscoe was issued a rather questionable drive-through penalty earlier in the race.

I believe Derrick Walker to be a man of integrity. Even though many don’t care for Brian Barnhart, I don’t question his character. Having said that, it sure gave fans the impression that IndyCar officials were willing to look the other way on a blatant safety infraction, just to keep one of Honda’s main threats in contention.

It is well documented that Honda has yet to sign an extension that will keep the manufacturer in the Verizon IndyCar Series for the foreseeable future. It is also well known that losing Honda as a partner would be an insurmountable blow to the series. Honda left Indianapolis and the month of May very angry and they didn’t mind letting their frustration be known. By ignoring the Rahal infraction, I’d say that IndyCar officials have evened the score with Honda – whether it was or was not intentional. I’d like to think it was unintentional, but I could be wrong.

One thing to keep in mind, however – the ruling was consistent with the way pit infractions have been handled all season. More on that later.

It’s a shame that there is a dark cloud over Rahal’s victory. He had nothing to do with the infraction. It was strictly on one crew-member. And, oh by the way…he drove a heck of a race. After starting nineteenth, he worked his way to the front and stayed there all afternoon. I’m not the biggest Rahal fan in the world, but I’ll concede he is becoming more likeable. I’m thinking his fiancé, Courtney Force, is having a positive influence on him in and out of the car. Whatever the case, Rahal has been strong all season and it finally came together for him, albeit under suspicious circumstances that were beyond his control.

As for the rest of the race, I can’t remember when I’ve seen a more exciting race. I’ll be honest, I was relieved when it was over. It was so nerve-wracking it wore me out to watch. As a fan, that’s better than putting me to sleep halfway through. But there are justified concerns about this type of racing that I’ll address later.

It was almost fitting that this race ended with Ryan Briscoe becoming airborne and inverted before the nose of his car dug into the infield grass and thrashed its helpless passenger around violently. Miraculously, he was able to walk away with that trademark Briscoe smile on his face.

TV Coverage: I’ve read where some have a problem with Steve Matchett blatantly cheering on certain drivers near the end of a race. He was obvious in his favoritism with his urging of Graham Rahal at Barber with his “C’mon son”. He did the same with Briscoe on Saturday as he kept telling him to not give up that bottom line.

Personally, I have no problem with it. I think he is the best racing broadcast analyst in the business and his enthusiasm is genuine. Although he comes from a Formula One background, Matchett has clearly done his homework and didn’t just show up for the weekend. Saturday’s race was apparently the first oval that Matchett has broadcast and his amazement with what he was witnessing was obvious.

I’ve heard Curt Cavin say that Townsend Bell can elevate any telecast. That may be true, but give me the pairing of Paul Tracy and Steve Matchett any day.

On a side note – give credit to Kevin Lee for pushing aside his professional pit reporter image, during the post-race interviews, and asking Ryan Briscoe what every fan was wondering. With astonishment in his voice, Kevin asked Briscoe to explain a race driver’s mentality on how could he stand there and watch a video of the horrifying ride he had just taken. Kevin Lee is a pro, but he always lets us know that he is one of us by showing a fan’s passion in his job.

Redemption for Honda: You can argue that IndyCar officials may have been trying to appease Honda with the no-call on the Graham Rahal pit violation, but there is no arguing that Honda acquitted themselves on Saturday. The Honda aero kit has been a punch-line since the open test at Barber in mid-March. Even then, word was circulating that they had put all of their marbles into their super-speedway package. But the situation with qualifying at Indianapolis derailed those plans.

At one point late in the race on Saturday, the majority of cars in the lead pack were Hondas. Paul Tracy even noted that he thought the Honda engine was stronger than the Chevy, but their problem was with their aero package.

Rahal was not the only Honda running up front. Ryan Briscoe, Carlos Muñoz, Marco Andretti and Takuma Sato all spent most of the day running in the front pack.

A one-three finish on a big oval can go a long way in helping the morale of all the Honda teams, especially with three of the five remaining races being ovals. Of course, two of those three are short ovals where I’m assuming Honda will be running their high-downforce package. It also doesn’t hurt that the president and CEO of American Honda was in attendance on Saturday. Don’t under-estimate what this win has done for Honda.

The Pack Racing Debate: As for the race, it was so good it was almost scary to watch. I’m really torn on the subject of pack racing. On one hand, it is mesmerizing – at least on television. You don’t dare look away, even during the commercials when the non-stop box is provided. It’s very similar to restrictor-plate racing in NASCAR. A driver may be leading one lap and be eleventh the next time by.

Unfortunately, like NASCAR, there is also always the potential for “the big one” with pack racing. By about Lap Five, I started flashing back to Las Vegas in 2011 – the last true pack racing event. Fifteen laps into that race, they had “the big one” and Dan Wheldon lost his life. While watching Saturday’s race was exhilarating, my fear was that something similar could occur.

We all know that a fatality or serious injury is possible in any race. That was proven at seemingly safe tracks like Toronto in 1996 or Houston in 2013. But it seems like pack racing at high speed ovals is tempting fate. I’m not an engineer, but it appears that it’s not an easy problem to solve and that IndyCar has quite an issue on its hands. I imagine it’s a very fine line between allowing enough downforce to be able to pass, but not adding so much that the cars are bunched together like they were Saturday.

Like almost everything else in IndyCar, there is a great divide in opinion. Single file parades are boring and tough to watch. I’m a die-hard and can find entertainment in watching different strategies play out in those parades. But IndyCar already has me. They need new fans besides me, and new fans aren’t likely to be enticed by watching someone pit late for fresh tires and seeing if the strategy works.

Tim Cindric, Will Power and Tony Kanaan were very vocal against this type of racing after the race – Kanaan especially. According to Trackside Online, Kanaan slammed down his microphone in the post-race press conference when one media member questioned his opinions on pack racing. He responded by saying it was his life on the line and he’s the one that lost his best friend by racing like this.

That point was countered by an eighty year-old AJ Foyt, who smirked when asked what he thought about this type of racing. He said he always liked it when he was racing. He said at least they had a chance to race – giving the impression that those that didn’t like it were cry-babies. Closer to home, Ed Carpenter later tweeted “I love close @IndyCar racing. Hate to see drivers bad-mouthing a series. If you want to race, race. If not, retire.” Ouch!

I can see both sides of this debate, and IndyCar has a tough job on their hands striking the right balance. From a fan’s perspective, Saturday’s action was breathtaking. Briscoe’s crash ran on SportsCenter throughout the rest of the weekend. Like it or not, that’s the kind of action that attracts fans.

If you didn’t like that statement, you sure won’t like this one. Going back to the origins of this sport, that was the attraction to fans – that they were witnessing drivers risking and sometimes losing their lives in pursuit of a victory. Right or wrong, that was what attracted many to this sport decades ago. That was also at a time when the sport was losing six or seven drivers a year to racing fatalities.

Do you think that mentality has changed over time? When did NASCAR’s popularity soar? It happened in 2001, just after the death of Dale Earnhardt and on the heels of the fatalities of Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty in 2000. Racing purists will argue that point, saying that it’s the finer nuances of the sport that attracts fans. That’s what you and I like about it, but like it or not – many were initially attracted to this sport because there was the death-defying angle to it and sometimes, death won.

Some would say that no one is interested in safe racing, although I would argue that the term “safe racing” is an oxymoron. There is no safe racing. They can and should make the sport as safe as possible, but it is still inherently dangerous. Ask Dario Franchitti or James Hinchcliffe how safe the sport is.

There is the old saying that there are old drivers and bold drivers, but no old and bold drivers. No one questions the courage and bravery of Tony Kanaan or Will Power. Both have been through their share of horrifying crashes. Some they walked away from and some they were injured in. But they always came back. Will Power has suffered two broken backs and Tony Kanaan has driven races with broken bones.

Should either of them follow Ed Carpenter’s advice and retire? Should any driver that fears this kind of racing hang it up? Some say that if you start fearing for your life, then it’s time to retire. I don’t buy that. I think a driver would be insane to not think about the possibility of death or injury. Those are the kind of drivers to stay away from on the track.

This is a huge issue and it won’t be settled by an indecisive and over-aged blogger sitting at a computer in Nashville, TN. Tony Kanaan is right. Who am I or anyone else to tell him how he should risk his life? He is forty years old, has a relatively new wife and a brand–new baby along with a young son. Only he should decide how much risk he is willing to take at this point in his life. That’s not for fans, bloggers or other drivers to decide.

To wrap up my inconclusive part of this quandary, I think it was said best by an e-mail I received Sunday morning from the reader known as “redcar”. He said “I’ve finally figured out IndyCar, George. When it’s exciting to watch, I’m not supposed to like it.” That pretty well sums up the problem that IndyCar faces going forward on this topic. It was the most enjoyable race I’ve seen in years, but the drivers got out of their cars and chastised anyone who say they enjoyed it. Hmmm…

The Penalty Debate: Getting back to the non-call for Rahal – this has been a subject of debate all season long. Instead of issuing drive-through penalties for pit infractions during the race, teams and drivers are penalized the following Wednesday with fines and/or point reductions. Why was Ryan Briscoe issued a drive-through and Rahal wasn’t? Because Briscoe’s (perceived) penalty took place on the track – not in the pits.

Of course, one can argue that Helio Castroneves was not given a drive-through penalty at this year’s Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, even though he pretty well ruined Scott Dixon’s day in Turn One of the first lap. Instead, he was docked eight points the following week and then had that trimmed back to only a three-point penalty a few weeks later. There’s the inconsistency that fans, drivers and teams are complaining about.

I’m not a fan of issuing penalties the following week. No matter how harsh, penalties should be handed down at the track as often as possible. What good is a fine when you’re dealing with multi-million dollar budgets? The bigger teams can just budget in a few fines at the beginning of the year and tell their drivers to have at it. Will Rahal really mind if he loses ten or twenty points? He is currently fourth in the championship, just four points ahead of Helio Castroneves. That type of point reduction would move him back to fifth, which he has already stated as his goal in the standings this season. He still has the trophy and a second win to his credit after a 125-race drought.

If James Jakes finds himself in a position to win a race, but sees an air-hose lying in front of him, do you really think he’ll wait until it’s moved before taking off? If it means he gets a win and a points reduction on Wednesday, he’s taking the win and running over the air-hose. If it means a drive-through penalty, being a lap down and ruining a good finish – he’ll wait until the air-hose is moved.

So for those that claim this win is tainted because of a non-call, a penalty is coming this week. And it will be a penalty that is consistent with the other pit-lane violations this season. Those are the 2015 rules. I just hope they come up with some rules with some teeth in 2016.

Is Ed Whining? First of all, I am a big Ed Carpenter fan. I’ve always liked him as a driver. I cheered for him in 2009 and 2010 when he narrowly lost at Kentucky Speedway. I cheered loudly when he finally won there in 2011, giving Sarah Fisher Racing their first victory.

I was very happy for him as he won his second straight Indianapolis 500 pole last year and felt he was the innocent victim when he tangled with James Hinchcliffe in last year’s “500”.

But as this season has soured for Ed, so has his demeanor – and he is sounding uncharacteristically defensive about it. When he and Oriol Servia collided in Turn One at Indianapolis this year, he wasted no time in completely trashing Servia and deflecting all of the blame. However, replays clearly showed that Ed did to Servia exactly what he accused Hinch of the year before. Ed was also justifiably frustrated after parking his car at Texas.

On Saturday, Ed committed the ultimate sin for a racing team – he took out his teammate, and in this case, his employee Josef Newgarden. Knowing that he really couldn’t blame Newgarden for the blunder, he instead chose to blame his spotter on national TV.

Come on, Ed – you’re better than that. It’s OK to admit a mistake. I have an idea that whoever his spotter is will not be in a good mood this week. Even if he or she was ultimately at fault, Ed should act like the team leader (and owner) that he is and take the fall in public. That’s just my take.

Never Again: For years, I’ve been singing the praises for Ryan Briscoe and for years I’ve had people come back at me telling me that Briscoe is non-deserving and over-rated. In the comment section of this site, Briscoe’s been called everything from boring to incompetent. It’s been said that the only reason that Briscoe has seven wins was because he was in Penske equipment.

This season, I’d say Ryan Briscoe has had the last laugh. In the slower Honda at Indianapolis, he had to start at the back of the field due to the driver change when he subbed for Hinchcliffe. He finished twelfth. He finished eighth at Texas and Saturday was in contention for the win on the red-flag restart.

Then he had the horrifying crash headed to the white flag. Had I managed to survive such a spill, I would have been too stunned to even function. Ten minutes afterwards, he was smiling and talking about it as if he had merely brushed the wall.

Never again do I want to hear someone say that Briscoe is not a worthy driver or that he lacks the intestinal fortitude to be a racer. That guy has gigantic stones and he’s one heck of a driver. On top of that, he’s extremely fan-friendly. If I were to win the lottery and start up a race team, he’d be among the first drivers I would call. He’s certainly earned my respect, not that that’s worth anything.

All in all: I’ve already said it a couple of times, but this was one the best races I’ve seen in years. It was entertaining and nerve-wracking all at the same time. Some of the drivers and some racing purists may not care for it, but no one can deny that they put on a great show. It will be debated for weeks to come whether or not this is the direction that IndyCar should be going. I don’t know the answer because I can definitely see both sides.

The other big problem was that even though it was a great show – no one saw it. I’ve seen sparse crowds at tracks before, but Saturday’s may be the smallest I’ve seen. Robin Miller estimates three-thousand. It’s hard to estimate when you’re there, much less while sitting on your couch at home. Hopefully, the Verizon IndyCar Series will return to Fontana next year. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with Robin Miller’s pointed, but dead-on video message to Mark Miles that he recorded just after the race. Love him or hate him, Robin Miller usually ends up being right on most things. I think he is here, also.

There’s a lot to chew on after this race – probably more than any race I can remember in a long, long time. But that’s what we do here. I look forward to hearing your perspective. It should be interesting.

George Phillips

Fontana Preview

Posted in IndyCar on June 26, 2015 by Oilpressure

This weekend, more precisely tomorrow afternoon, the Verizon IndyCar Series resumes its quickening run to the end of the season. Counting tomorrow’s race at Auto Club Speedway at Fontana, California – there are only six races left in the season. That seems odd to say (and type), since it is still June. In past seasons, we would only be approaching the halfway point about now.

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Looking Back And Looking Ahead

Posted in IndyCar on June 24, 2015 by Oilpressure

It’s amazing what a week away from something can do for your attitude. Even if that something is something you love; too much of a good thing can be exhausting. Such was the case with blogging. In the past week, I’ve been able to clear my head and take a step away from racing. It’s been a good thing and I’m happy to be back at it.

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Do The Big Teams Win Too Much?

Posted in IndyCar on June 17, 2015 by Oilpressure

More than ever, it seems that there is such a strong sentiment against a Penske or Ganassi car winning a race in the Verizon IndyCar Series, that some say it is turning people away from the series in general.

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Random Thoughts On Toronto

Posted in IndyCar on June 15, 2015 by Oilpressure

When the weather forecast for Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto made it apparent that the race would be another event affected by rain, I wondered what the Verizon IndyCar Series could do to catch a break. The race weekend at NOLA was all but a total washout, first day qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 never happened and both races at Detroit were greatly affected by rain. Add to that the fact that last year’s double-header at Toronto had to be run in one day due to heavy rains on Saturday.

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Toronto Preview

Posted in IndyCar on June 12, 2015 by Oilpressure

The Verizon IndyCar Series heads north of the border to one of my favorite cities – Toronto. I sound like I’m a frequent visitor there. In all honesty, I’ve been there twice in my life – once in 1972 as a teenager, and then twenty years ago in 1995. So I would be less than genuine if I gave the impression that I’m a world traveler.

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IndyCar Must Do Whatever It Takes

Posted in IndyCar on June 10, 2015 by Oilpressure

Last week, there were two separate articles that caught my eye and offered slightly different takes on sort of the same subject – the Honda aero kit.

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